ZJU Shocks Again With Dark, Sci-Fi “Tempest”

Earlier this year, I caught Tempest Redux at the Odyssey — the most thrilling, imaginative and moving version of this classic I’ve ever seen [see my review, Feb. 22].

Imagine my surprise when I went to Zombie Joe’s Underground this week, and experienced a Tempest that almost rivals it.

Bear in mind that ZJU is one of this city’s smallest, most modestly equipped theatres. Its 40 seats dwarf the tiny acting space, the lighting is straight from Ace Hardware. And yet … and yet …

Elif Savas as Ariel (photo: Marti Matulis)

Elif Savas as Ariel (photo: Elif Savas)

In the first scene, a spaceship lands in an ocean near an island. The voyagers may be lost, but we’re soon in familiar territory: Prospero gleefully watches the shipwreck , while  Miranda drowsily listens. Then we meet Ariel, then Caliban, and the tale clips along its well-known track.  Except that Prospero works his magic through a cyberglove, and one of the castaways is a silver-skinned android.

Director/adapter Jana Wimer has trimmed Shakespeare’s opus by more than half, to an hour, but has kept its plot and themes intact. She uses the sci-fi lightly, simply letting it signal “alien fantasy” to us as the desert island did to Elizabethan audiences. Her other changes are shrewd, too — making sycophantic Gonzalo a robot that mimics human empathy, folding Stephano and Trinculo into one, casting women in several roles … and letting us see the dark, vengeful side of Prospero (which sets up the most unorthodox change, at the end).

Wimer’s vision is ably assisted by Kenny Harder’s deft handling of the balky low-tech booth, and by Hans Fjellestad’s music and Wimer’s and Michael Maio’s evocative sound design. But the costumes (by Ashley Gallup) and the makeup (by the cast members) are stunning. Elif Savas’ Ariel and Jonica Patella’s Caliban are award-worthy — not all the Mark Taper’s resources could do better.

And then there’s the acting. Bert Emmett (Prospero) and Ernest Kearney (King Alonso), clearly stage veterans, hold down the poles — royal gravitas at one end, and privileged buffoonery at the other. Mark Dakota’s metallic Gonzalo reaches for the human with a steadfast sweetness, while Jason Britt’s clueless Trinculo falls farther and farther away from it. Emma Pauly calmly bares a sociopathic coldness as the usurper Antonio, and Vanessa Cate’s Ferdinand leaps with delightful comic relish into wooing Miranda.

But the wonders of this strange land are its aliens. Savas’ Ariel sings with ethereal beauty, but oozes an almost demonic bitterness. The sprite capers lightly, yet seems untameable, part of the chillingly amoral wilderness. Patella’s Caliban, on the other hand, is immoral — a creature of cruelty aflame with returning the favor. Half human, half awful elf, this blue mooncalf is both fearsome and funny, fawning on hapless Trinculo and wheedling him  to his doom.

And with Trinculo falls a world. But you’ll have to go to the black box in NoHo to see how it all happens. It’s well worth the journey.
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The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Jana Wimer.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays at 8:30,
Sundays at 7:00,
through Dec. 18 (dark Thanksgiving weekend).

Tickets:  <www.zombiejoes.com>  or  (818) 202-4120.

“Bloodletting”: A Filipino Look at Life with Witches

‘Tis the season for witches. For a weekend (well, more like a month), weird sisters come out to dance in our fantasies and in our streets. Then we turn our eyes toward Christmas and they disappear.

Elsewhere, people of many cultures take it for granted that witchery lives among them. All the time. And they have to find a way to make that work.

Without violence, if possible. (As Europe and America have clearly shown, exorcisms and lynchings add to human suffering, but change nothing.)

Evie Abat, Myra Cris Ocenar (photo: Playwrights' Arena)

Evie Abat, Myra Cris Ocenar (photo: Playwrights’ Arena)

In Bloodletting, playwright Boni B. Alvarez looks at how folks on the Philippine isle of Palawan coexist with what we would call the supernatural (they don’t). This is a play, not an anthropology text — so the exploring is done by a brother and sister who’ve traveled from LA and New York to lay their father’s ashes in his ancestral home.

They find a great deal more than they bargained for. Their family pilgrimage bogs down in a rain-soaked village, on the porch of what may or may not be a cafe. There, they learn nothing’s as simple as they’d like. They learn about the aswang, a vampiric witch; and they begin learning how we must deal with extraordinary beings and powers among us — and within us.

Bloodletting comes out of the gate fast, with an engaging but unsettling moment where we’re eavesdroppers, then takes us on a journey that’s both comic and harrowing. Much of the comedy comes in the bickering between Farrah (Myra Cris Ocenar) and her brother Bosley (author Alvarez). Their reluctant host Jenry (Alberto Isaac) and his mercurial daughter LeeLee (Evie Abat) lead them — and us — into the dark recesses of the world they’ve stumbled into.

One of the many pleasures of this sometimes discomforting play is its music. Supported by Howard Ho’s sound design, the rhythms of Philippine speech — including pauses and silences — saturate the piece (Alvarez’s ear is remarkable). Jenry at once confronts the siblings’ urban American directness, but gently; LeeLee does so more abruptly. And gradually, the two visitors fall into the more relaxed rhythms of the language they grew up in.

The music of speech subtly works as a metaphor, paralleling the way Farrah and Bosley slowly come to accept reality as it appears in Palawan. The story’s “supernatural” elements work metaphorically, too — an aswang must learn self-restraint (and self-acceptance) in order not to harm others, a lesson each of us must learn, witch or not. When all the layers of a story support one another like this, there’s some first-rate playwriting going on.

This Playwrights’ Arena production also glows with first-rate directing — the masterful Jon Lawrence Rivera — and performing. Before we know anything, Abat’s LeeLee draws us into the play’s world, at once natural and mysterious; throughout, she sustains this volatile blend of wise reliability and fey danger. Abat makes real what  we must believe (and does it as well as the best Ariel I’ve ever seen). When we meet Jenry, he’s pinned between hospitality and the need to hide; bit by bit, Isaac lets us see his even greater need to confide, and to help these hapless newcomers, until it overwhelms his caution. It’s a lovely slow dance, a fierce struggle concealed by a mask of geniality, but revealed by a delicate artist.

As Farrah, Ocenar travels an equally reluctant arc, from brusque confidence to shattered humility. She makes us feel each step rasping against the grain of her accustomed self; she also lets us glimpse something eager and unknown that waits to be released. And as Bosley, Alvarez deftly creates a “type” yet makes him fully human. We laugh with him even as we sense  his inner mountain being shaken apart, and we cry with him when his armor for meeting the world is torn away. It’s hard to imagine another actor doing this part so well.

In the Halloween season, Bloodletting may look like another costume parade of scary phantasms for us to shiver at and forget; it’s not.
Set in the tropical world of Palawan, far off in the Pacific, it may seem too distant and exotic to affect us; it’s not. Bloodletting is a fine piece of theatrical storytelling that alters our sense of what is real, and what in life matters.
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Bloodletting, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays at 7:00,
through Nov. 27,

Tickets: <www.bloodlettingplay.brownpapertickets.com>

Something Wicked Comes to Vagrancy’s “Macbeth”

A well-known story challenges the tellers to show what they can imagine, where they can take us. So it is with Macbeth, the familiar tale of a king-killer driven mad by guilt. You don’t go to learn the story, but to see how it’s told.

At the LA Shakespeare Center, the folks of The Vagrancy are giving the Scottish play a wicked new spin.

It’s not the story they tweak so much as the world around it. Tristan Jeffers’ set brings us into a murky post-apocalypse of rusted steel and crooked, barren trees. Twisting witches glide silently through the fog and filthy air, moving as if their genes — like those of the trees — have been altered in the struggle to survive. Matt Richter’s softly leaking soundtrack erupts in sudden drums, and we’ve begun.

(photo: Wes Marsala)

(photo: Wes Marsala)

This isn’t medieval Scotland. The characters do keep their names and speeches, but who they speak to may surprise. Most importantly, it’s Queen Duncan everyone bows to, which subtly establishes that this world is rooted in the feminine — it’s not a patriarchy. Donalbain is Malcolm’s valiant sister, not his brother. And when Macduff confides his plans to his wife (instead of a male bystander), she becomes a far more sympathetic figure, her murder far more heinous.

The performers work with energy and intelligent invention.  Ann Colby Stocking’s Duncan dominates scenes as a royal leader must, but with gentle generosity and personal courage. Alana Dietze takes Lady Macbeth from whip to willow and back, and lets us watch her being led step by step out of her comfort zone (instead of just showing up crazy at the end). As Macbeth, Daniel Kaemon makes every line and moment clear, especially those in which he’s torn against himself; we feel with him the horror of necessity, in his ever-narrowing choices and in their ever-widening consequences.

The secondary characters are similarly well embodied, from Elitia Daniels’ brave Lady Macduff to Austin Iredale’s methodical (and creepily enthusiastic) murderer. Of special note are two child actors — Mia Moore as Macduff’s child, and Andrew Grigorian as Fleance — who exhibit comfort on the stage and hold character admirably. Then, of course, there are the witches. Marissa Dorrego Brennan, Kelly Perez and Carolyn Deskin capture our attention from the moment we enter, and rivet it every time they appear.

Interestingly, the witches — who have most of the play’s famous poetic lines — utter almost none of them. They dance their scenes, and in so doing create an intensely physical atmosphere. In fact, this play is as much embodied as spoken, from the gentle affections of the families (Duncan’s, Banquo’s, Macduff’s) to the Macbeths’ grasping sexuality to the many gruesome murders.

This brings us to the hidden genius of the piece: Caitlin Hart, founding artistic director of The Vagrancy. Long known for tight direction and a penchant for exploration, Hart must count this Macbeth among her masterworks.

Her vision is truly wicked, rooted in natural wisdom and intuition, where things grow (and die) according to their inmost laws, however crooked they may appear. It’s wicked to set the witches writhe-dancing through scene after scene, ominously quiet; wicked to have them re-animate Banquo’s corpse; wicked to send young Fleance, a future king, across the stage at the end.

Hart’s wicked vision is omnipresent, challenging, and always rich with meaning. And her ability to develop the vision with every member of the company is impressive.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a timeless tragedy, as ambition wreaks havoc upon individual lives and the world’s order. Hart and The Vagrancy make it a tragedy for our time, as a ravaged world seeking to regain its balance is torn off center by those who would kill for power. This is a bold, unsettling re-telling of a story we will always need.
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Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, directed by Caitlin Hart.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., LA 90026.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through Nov. 20th.

Tickets: <www.thevagrancy.com>

Art and Love Collide — “Mariela” at Casa 0101

Art doesn’t happen on demand. (Ask anyone staring a a blank page or canvas, or at a blank wall.)

As John the Evangelist said of the wind:  “It blows where it chooses, and you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes.” In Mariela in the Desert, the wind often blows so suddenly and loudly it interrupts conversations.

That’s a graceful clue to the heart of the play.  Mariela, now playing at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights, depicts the family of a Mexican painter self-exiled to the northern desert at the height of that nation’s great artistic outburst, the mid-20th century Expressionist Movement.

Rachel Gonzalez (photo: Ed Krieger)

Rachel Gonzalez (photo: Ed Krieger)

Jose Salvatierra — a friend of Rivera, Kahlo, Siqueiros and Tamayo —  dreams of an artists’ colony in the desert. He and  his wife Mariela, also a painter, leave Mexico City; but no one follows. Mariela stops painting to raise their children. After a long dry spell, Jose wins a national prize; but he unaccountably brings the painting home, then falls into a long, terminal battle with diabetes.

This is where we enter the story. By the time  we leave, much has been revealed — about the family’s history, about the fickleness of talent and inspiration, and about the painful complexities of love.

Mariela is an early play by Karen Zacarías, one of America’s most-produced playwrights. It has a rough edge or two (e.g., monologs that tell us nothing the characters don’t show us), but it has considerable strength — in its characters, in the courage with which they confront their lives, and in its fearless portrayal of  what art can do to the lives it moves through.

Casa 0101 and the Angel City Theater Ensemble stage this work  with intelligence and energy. Marco DeLeon’s set places us in a familiar environment, yet keeps us from feeling at home (so do the fluctuating scrim projections). Props (by Alexander Cooper) and costumes (by Abel Alvarado) fill out the world and the characters, and even help to tell the story — as when objects shatter, or when the young professor squirms in a suit he can’t quite fit.

Robert Beltran’s direction is crisp-paced and clear, easily finessing many changes of scene and time. And the actors’ performances are shaped by strong choices. Denise Blasor makes spinster aunt Oliva real, with an unpredictable range of mental and emotional moments; Kenneth Lopez suggests young Carlos’ disabilities, while focusing on his feelings; and Randy Vasquez’s professor flows nicely from ill-at-ease visitor to almost family.

Vannessa Vasquez, as the daughter who inherits the artistic gift (or curse), carves a believable path from anxious homecoming to new wisdom; she also shifts easily from adult to child in flashbacks. Vance Valencia, as her father, gives us a man with talent and an ability to love who’s almost blinded by ambition; he, too, moves deftly between ages, from Jose’s bullish youth to his querulous decline. And Rachel Gonzalez, in an impressively contained performance, always lets us sense the immense forces at play beneath Mariela’s firmly managed persona.

Mariela in the Desert is a valuable play: it corrects some of the blindness of our era. It focuses on Mexico (not the US), on women (not men), and on the human costs of art (not its glories). Casa 0101 and the Angel City Theater Ensemble give us  an engrossing, important story told with the skill and sensitivity it deserves.
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Mariela in the Desert, by Karen Zacarías, directed by Robert Beltran.
Presented by Casa 0101 and Angel City Theater Ensemble, at the Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. 1st St., LA 90033.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through December 11.

Tickets:  <www.casa0101.org>  or  (323) 263-7684.